Monday, September 18, 2017

Are Bestsellers Getting Dumber?

According to the September 2017 issue of READER’S DIGEST, bestsellers are indeed dumber. The article demonstrates that the language of the most popular novels today is much simpler than just a few decades ago.

Author Ben Blatt discusses this in his book NABOKOV’S FAVORITE WORD IS MAUVE from which the article is taken. Blatt collected every digitized number one NEW YORK TIMES bestseller from 1960 to 2014 and ran the Flesch-Kincaid test on all 563 of them. His research maintains that most books meant for a general audience fall within the 4th to 11th grade range as do all of the bestsellers. In the 1960’s, the median book had a grade level of 8. Blatt’s research places today’s median grade level at 6. Interestingly, bestsellers at the lowest score range (grade 4.4) were written by three high volume writers who generally top the bestseller list: James Patterson, Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts.

Blatt also breaks down books by genre. Thrillers and romances are singled out in particular for what he calls the “dumbification” of popular fiction. Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Harlan Coben all rank at or below 6th grade reading level.

However, Blatt doesn’t castigate these writers for using simple language. Popular writers want to embrace the masses, to reach as many readers as possible. He sees this as a good thing.

As a writer, the advice I’ve run across most frequently is to use language that is clear, concise and simple. George Orwell said it best: “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.”

 Yet as a former teacher as well, I have observed that the interest and ability to read has diminished to some extent in our society, at least in my lifetime. Perhaps you disagree or agree?

Your thoughts welcome here.